January 10, 2005

BOOKS: Never Coming to a Theater Near You, Kenneth Turan (2004)

Turan is film critic for the Los Angeles Times and NPR's Morning Edition. Here, he collects roughly 150 of his Times reviews (with minor editing and updating), focusing on movies that probably didn't play at the multiplex in most smaller cities, or that didn't get the attention Turan thinks they deserved.

The book's divided into five sections: English-language films, foreign-language films, documentaries, classics, and "Retrospectives." That last section is a collection of essays focusing on specific directors (Max Ophuls, Anthony Mann) or types of movies (Yiddish cinema, pre-Code Hollywood) , each one generally written in response to a festival of such films.

Turan's a nice writer, with a particular knack for openings that draw you in, like this one:

Flirting With Disaster doesn't just begin, it irrepressibly erupts,
like champagne too impatient to stay in the glass.

or this:

Bela Lugosi may have made it look easy, but being one of the undead, Cronos insists, is hardly a simple thing

He's skilled at explaining why a movie works (or doesn't, though given the nature of this collection, that's fairly rare here) and at giving just enough information about the story to interest you without giving away key plot twists.

I may actually be at something of a disadvantage in reading this book. Living in Los Angeles means that I've had the chance to see most of these movies, and being a movie fanatic means that I actually seen more than half of them. Even so, I've stumbled across a few movies that are being added to my Netflix list (Speaking in Strings and Laws of Gravity, for instance), and it was great fun being reminded of several obscurities I'd enjoyed (the documentary East Side Story, a history of movie musicals from behind the Iron Curtain, or the lovely Australian movie Proof, featuring Russell Crowe and Hugo Weaving in early roles).

And even when Turan tackles a movie I didn't care for (Waking Ned Devine comes to mind), he writes about it in such a way that I can understand why he enjoyed it, and I'm left feeling slightly more charitable about the movie than I had been.

This is entertaining reading, and if you're not in one of the major media markets, it's a great resource for that next trip to the video store.

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